The most important issue that nobody is talking about

19 Nov 2019

The election machinery of British politics has got going, albeit at a spluttering start. Each party is triangulating their own focus of political messaging as they jockey to articulate and guide the public mood.

 

Whilst the Conservatives, Lib Dems and Brexit Party (no surprises here) want to make this election the “Brexit” election, the Labour Party are understandably wanting to fight this electoral battle on other terms. The environment, inequality and housing are firmly on the agenda for Jeremy Corbyn’s party and his team of outriders. Whilst it is pleasing to see the dial shifted away from questions of Europe, Backbench are deeply worried that one issue that is going to dominate discourse in the next 50 years has been completely ignored. We are not examining surveillance anywhere near closely enough.

 

London has more CCTV cameras per person than any other large city (other than Shanghai). Google have access to NHS data through their subsidiary AI firm DeepMind. Technology companies are expanding their role beyond original mission statements, so much so that their products and services are becoming embedded within the infrastructure of the economy, state and military.

 

Although some politicians have touched upon the various aspects of Russian troll farms and tweeted about Netflix documentary “The Great Hack”, such an analysis misses the point. Even if you set aside the fact that the psychographic data analysis provided by Cambridge Analytica appears to be complete snake-oil, pointing the finger at dark money and troll farms doesn’t even consider how the logic of data accumulation is driving trends. The relationship between the state and the market is being transformed, yet when it comes to data and surveillance the best politicians can muster is a vague excuse to explain why the “End of History” consensus is collapsing before them.

 

Many of the big names in the cabinet voted in favour of the Snooper’s Charter, an Act which gives the government greater scope to intrude into the private lives of citizens and retain data. Even Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson supported the bill. It must be said that Jeremy Corbyn opposed the Act, but there has been complete radio silence from him on related matters since then.

 

Influential think tanks have kept their lips sealed too. Although the likes of Privacy International and Big Brother Watch have been banging the drum in terms of protecting data rights, liberty think tanks such as the Adam Smith Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs have remained remarkably quiet on the encroachment of liberties. Whilst there are clear ideological trade-offs between free markets and civil liberties, such civil society organisations cannot ignore this political problem for much longer.

 

Over the course of the next couple of months, Backbench are going to be mapping out how big data, technology and the surveillance state is shaping our lives. Whether it is the election strategies of political parties, the algorithms of Microsoft and Google, or Foucault’s analysis of Bentham’s panopticon, we are looking at the central ways in which technology influences the fabric of our social lives.

 

It is understandable to see why this isn’t a hot election topic. The much more visible, often visually shocking aspects of botched healthcare and environmental policy is going to capture the public attention far more easily than considering algorithms generated by software engineers in some high-security offices, stowed away from the world of social media. But this doesn’t mean that politics shouldn’t strive to fix these problems.

 

The ‘slow violence’ involved in the Anthropocene’s climate systems breakdown existed long before the days of viral videos and school strikes. Half a century ago, the developed world was sheltered from the external damage caused by global development. This cognitive cloak of invisibility is present today in the surveillance state. The sooner we lift the shroud, the better.

 

Backbench are seeking pitches on a range of issues surrounding technology and the surveillance state. If you would be interesting in writing such a piece, please send a pitch to Tom Westgarth at westgarth@bbench.co.uk

 

 

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